A PIONEER IN THE SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT
Central Church's first pastor was the Rev. Charles Sheldon, a pioneer in the social gospel movement and author of the international bestseller "In His Steps." Rev. Sheldon gave birth to the profound question "What Would Jesus Do?"
Located at Huntoon and Buchanan streets, the original Central Congregational Church building served us for over 125 years.
Central Congregational Church was officially organized on December 11, 1888. Our first pastor was Dr. Charles Sheldon, who was preaching in Vermont when a Central parishioner invited him to Topeka. During Sheldon's tenure, from 1888 to 1920, Central Church stood at the forefront of progressive reforms in Kansas.
The newly formed congregation quickly became involved in ongoing service to the community. Working with formerly enslaved Southerners who had migrated to Topeka's Tennessee Town neighborhood, Sheldon and the congregation helped find jobs for many of its residents, and organized a community garden, a library and various training programs. Sheldon and Central Church also sponsored the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi River in 1893.
In 1896, Sheldon developed a sermon story that he read as a weekly series from the pulpit of Central Church. The unifying theme of these sermons was based on posing the question "what would Jesus do?" when facing moral decisions. This theme was later fictionalized into the novel In His Steps. For 60 years, In His Steps was the largest-selling book in the United States after the Bible. It has sold over 30 million copies, and has been translated into 27 foreign languages.
In 1920, Sheldon left the pulpit and was succeeded by John Wells Rahill. Rahill also used a form of mass media to reach a larger audience. He presented moving pictures during Sunday evening services, while basing his sermon's themes on the films shown. The moving picture services were well attended, though controversial among some Topekans. Rahill defended them by citing Jesus' use of parables to make his points. Motion pictures, Rahill said, were the "parabolic method of today."
Rahill left Central in 1937. Dr. W. Ernest Collins then filled the pulpit. He was popular among the local business community, and during his first year of service he founded Group XI, which was composed of business and professional women. Continuing his predecessors' penchant for using modern media, Collins hosted a radio talk show.
Renovation and restoration marked the 1940s and '50s during the tenures of the next two ministers, Dr. Charles Helsley and Ned Burr McKenney. The church building had been neglected during the Depression, and repairs were made to the basic structure of the church, and enlargements were made. These new additions included a new chancel, a chapel in the Community House, new stained glass windows, and central air conditioning.
Building improvement completed, the 1960s brought Central a return to concern for the community. Arthur H. Kolsti came to Central in 1963. He was one of the principal organizers of Doorstep, an agency originally created to provide assistance to families in the community who had been affected by the 1966 tornado, which had destroyed many of the surrounding neighborhoods. Doorstep is still a part of the Topeka community, and today provides a clothing bank and a food bank for those in need of assistance.
Also under Kolsti's direction a Sheldon Memorial Committee was established. The major project of the committee was the sponsoring of two Vietnamese families who relocated in the Topeka area in 1975.
Gerald Eslinger was called to Central in 1978. During Eslinger's time at Central, the church became involved in Let's Help, yet another community project to aid neighbors in need.
Don Miller was called in 1986 and saw the church through its centennial. At that time, members of the congregation were active in a number of fellowship and ecumenical groups, including Group XI, a men's breakfast group, the Spiritual Growth Group, Keenagers (a group for active seniors), supper clubs and adult Christian education.
In 1993, Central Church became an Open & Affirming congregation, which means we welcome everyone who wishes to participate in the body of Christ regardless of gender, race, age, culture, ethnic background, sexual orientation, economic circumstance, family configuration or difference in ability.
As the 21st Century began, Central's congregation faced a dilemma: its venerable old edifice was showing its age and becoming harder to maintain, but declining membership meant fewer funds to make repairs.
Nevertheless, throughout the early 2000s, Central remained steadfast in its mission to be a champion for marginalized communities. Members volunteered their time to serve meals, donate clothing and fight for justice. Central was led during this decade by the following pastors:
Kathryn Timpany – 1997-2005
Sherri Triggs – 2005-2011
Scott Kenefeke (interim) – 2011-2013
Joshua Longbottom – 2013-2016
Cynthia Meyer (interim) – 2016-2018
By 2016, it became clear to church leaders that they could no longer continue paying the bills to maintain their large, aging property. In 2017, Central Church sold its historic structure to El Shaddai Templo de Alabanza, a Spanish-speaking congregation. Central Church members met for about a year at Temple Beth Sholom.
Central Church's current pastor is Gage Church, who joined us in July 2018. Under his leadership, we found a new home at the Topeka Woman's Club. With his help and through God's grace we have faith that our best years are ahead of us.
Our new home is at 5221 SW West Drive, where we share space with the Woman's Club of Topeka.